Sleep Guide for Grievers

Nicola Middlemiss

Nicola Middlemiss

18/05/2022

What to do when you can’t sleep after the death of someone special.

Sleep deprivation is a common side-effect of grief. In the days, weeks and even months after a loved one dies, you may find yourself struggling to fall asleep or unable to sleep through the night.

Unfortunately, a lack of sleep isn’t just tiring – it can have a big impact on emotional wellbeing and it can make it harder for people to grieve in a healthy way.

Taking steps to improve your sleep will give you a better chance of getting through the grieving process without developing complicated grief.

To help, we’ve created this guide which covers a range of tips on improving sleep even when you’re stressed, anxious and grieving. It covers:

Tips on falling asleep when grieving
Why can’t I sleep after a loved one dies?
How long is it normal to not sleep after a loved one dies?
What are the effects of not getting enough sleep?
FAQs

Tips on falling asleep when grieving

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to getting better sleep. But, there are a few things you can try which can improve your chances of getting good rest.

  • Exercise during the day
  • Set a nightly bedtime goal
  • Read a book or write a journal
  • Have some non-caffeinated herbal tea
  • Meditate or try mindfulness exercises

It could also help to avoid certain things, such as:

  • Alcohol and caffeine in the afternoon and evening
  • Watching TV or using a phone or tablet before bed
  • Napping during the day.

Making sure you have a comfortable environment to sleep in can also help. Try:

  • Turning notifications off on your phone
  • Blocking out as much light as possible
  • Using earplugs or an eye mask
  • Having a well-ventilated room
  • Playing white noise or relaxing music
  • Exposing yourself to morning light once you wake up

If you don’t find your sleep improving, you may wish to seek help from friends and family, a support group, a licensed therapist or from your doctor.

Why can’t I sleep after a loved one dies?

The reasons vary. Often, people report that it’s easier to keep their mind preoccupied during the day, so they’re not solely focussed on their grief of the death of their loved one.

However, at night, it’s much harder to find healthy distractions and people find their thoughts are largely focussed on the person who died, their loss, or the stress of post-death arrangements.

For people who lived with the person who died, it’s likely their bedtime routine is completely different. They may be going to sleep in a bed they used to share with the person who died and things might not ‘feel right’.

Once asleep, people report waking up after vivid dreams about their loved one. The shock or upset of experiencing this can then make it difficult to get back to sleep.

It’s important to recognise that changes in sleep are part of the grieving process. For many people, it’s just something they have to go through in order to heal.

However, if a lack of sleep is making it harder to process the death or making your day-to-day life more difficult, you may benefit from speaking to a doctor.

How long is it normal to not sleep after a loved one dies?

It’s different for everyone. Grief is complex and every situation is different. The amount of time one person takes may be completely different to another.

If you find that you are struggling to cope physically and psychologically after a loss of a loved one, there are many resources out there that can help, including:

Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
GriefLine Community and Family Services

You may also want to speak with your doctor or a trained professional about your loss.

What are the effects of not getting enough sleep?

A lack of sleep can make day-to-day life more difficult, negatively impact our emotions, and even cause people to develop complicated grief and other health conditions. Other knock-on effects of poor sleep include:

  • Frustration
  • Hostility
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Diabetes
  • Heart conditions
  • Obesity
  • Weakened immunity
  • Becoming easily overwhelmed
  • Becoming more emotionally reactive
  • Reducing your ability to process grief
  • Development of complicated grief

Complicated grief is defined as grief that lasts more than six months, with symptoms of:

  • Recurrent and intrusive emotional pain
  • Persistent thoughts of the deceased
  • Avoidance of things that remind them of their loved one
  • Loneliness
  • Survivor’s guilt

FAQs

Is sleeping/not sleeping a part of grief?

Both sleeping excessively and struggling to sleep are normal responses to grief. You may find that you lack the motivation to get out of bed because of how overwhelming everything seems, or that you can’t fall asleep because you’re stressed about what’s happening.

How do I deal with grief when sleeping?

When you sleep, your brain will process the major events that have happened to you – in this case, likely the passing of your loved one. This may mean that you experience more dreams than usual about them. For some, these dreams can bring closure. For others, they may be distressing.

Nevertheless, sleeping is vital for processing grief and bereavement, as your brain and body has time to recognise your loss and prepare to cope with the aftermath.

How long does grief last?

There is no set timetable for grieving, and the duration of grief varies from person to person. Usually, however, grief will last up to six months, though in some cases it will extend to four years or more.

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